Aboriginal Borderlands: E. Pauline Johnson, Grey Owl, and Gisella Commanda



This exhibition concerns three extraordinary individuals who were passionately immersed in Native culture during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Their participation in Native life and affairs may have been due in part to birth, legal circumstance, conviction, or obsession. All three undoubtedly subscribed to a common understanding of Native spirituality in the belief that everything in nature is sacred and that all things have a related purpose linked to the Creator on a basis of honour, love and respect. They also shared an English ancestry. Grey Owl (né Archibald Belaney, 1888-1938) lied about his roots and assumed another identity altogether; he claimed that he was the child of a Scottish father and an Apache mother and that he had emigrated from the U.S.A. to join the Ojibwa. Gisela Commanda (née Almgren, 1908-1993) married Antoine Commanda, Grey Owl’s canoe man, in 1942; as a result of her marriage, she was a status Indian and lived on a series of reserves. Only E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), dubbed the Mohawk Princess, could claim to be a true Native by birth. She was the youngest of four children born to George Henry Martin Johnson, a Mohawk chief, and Emily Susanna Howells Johnson.

Pauline Johnson

During her lifetime Johnson (Tekahionwake) equally represented the dual parts of her heritage. A poet and platform entertainer, she gave dramatic recitations in Native dress and then in Victorian apparel to large audiences in England and North America. Her poems and pieces of prose appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, such as Saturday Night, the Week, Boys’ World, and Mother’s Magazine. Her major books are: The White Wampum, Canadian Born, Flint and Feather, and Legends of Vancouver. Her most memorable and evocative poem, The Song My Paddle Sings, has been reprinted in many anthologies. Her funeral, the largest at that time in Vancouver history, was held on what would have been her 52nd birthday. For a period of 50 years in Can Lit circles, she was largely forgotten, but her reputation soared and was rejuvenated when Aboriginal and women’s studies took on a significant dimension in the academic curriculum.

Grey Owl

Born in Hastings, England, Grey Owl (Wa-sha-quon-asin) burst upon the scene like a comet in 1931 with the publication of The Men of the Last Frontier, preaching the gospel of environmentalism. In 1906 he had immigrated to Canada, initially living in Toronto, and then in Temagami, Ontario. He adopted Indian mannerisms and worked as a trapper, wilderness guide, and forest ranger. In World War I he served as a sniper, was wounded, and returned to Canada in September 1917. In the late 1920s he worked for the Dominion Parks Service as a naturalist, made films, and wrote articles for several forestry and outdoor magazines. Hugh Eayrs of the Macmillan Company of Canada and Lovat Dickson published his books: Pilgrims of the Wild, The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People, Tales of an Empty Cabin, and The Tree. Dickson in particular arranged for his enormously successful speaking tours in Great Britain in 1935 and 1937 where Grey Owl appeared in full Indian regalia. Exhausted by the tours and by the toll of his erratic life style, Grey Owl returned to Beaver Lodge, his cabin at Ajawaan Lake in Saskatchewan, where he died of pneumonia on 13 April 1938. The true story of Grey Owl’s masquerade was revealed shortly after his death. On the one hand Grey Owl was a bigamist, an alcoholic, and an impostor. On the other hand he was a visionary, a pioneering conservationist, and a defender of Aboriginal rights.

Gisela Commanda

Trained as an artist, Gisela Commanda followed in the footsteps of her parents during the first thirty years of her life. She was so inspired by Grey Owl’s environmental message that she immigrated to North America in 1939. Although little of her work was published, she wrote and left behind a series of autobiographical journals, accounts, and histories of her Native contemporaries. Notwithstanding her physiognomy, birth, and upbringing, she was attuned entirely to the ways and customs of Indian culture. 

The exhibition is supplemented by artifacts from the Ethnographic Collection from the Department of Anthropology, courtesy of Meghan Burchell. These artifacts consist of 2 tobacco pouches, a pouch, a pair of moccasins, a pipe, an axe, beads, an earring, and arrowheads.


Text by Carl Spadoni




Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer